How to Choose a WordPress Theme
Our topic today is choosing a WordPress theme. Not surprisingly, the subject has come up before—there have been a number of general buyer’s guides written, and we highly recommend two in particular: “How to pick a WordPress theme that doesn’t suck” and “Choosing a new WordPress theme.”
The topic here is how to choose between a “kitchen sink” WordPress theme that offers everything under the sun, and a simpler theme that offers an attractive basic layout with relatively few baked-in options.
The topic here is a bit more specific: what kind of theme to buy—in particular, how to choose between a “kitchen sink” WordPress theme that offers everything under the sun in the form of theme options and built-in shortcodes, and a simpler theme that offers an attractive basic layout but comes with relatively few baked-in options.
As two good examples, there’s Avada—maybe the most successful kitchen sink theme of all time—and Peddlar, a clean, pretty, but relatively static e-commerce theme.
Both themes are good at what they do, and they’ve each been a good fit for one or more of our clients. So which type of theme should you go with?
The tradeoff: ease of customization vs. ease of replacement
In choosing a theme, you face a tradeoff that can be stated as follows: “Themes that can be more heavily customized via built-in options are generally more troublesome to swap out for other themes.”
Because people want out-of-the-box functionality, themes become digital fortresses of options and add-ons—all of which disappear if you ever switch themes. It’s like a car whose engine breaks if you ever change paint jobs.
Stated as a problem, this is called “theme creep”—which we’ve written and spoken about extensively. Basically, a theme should really handle only the visual presentation of your site’s information. But this would mean leaving out a lot of lovable options, like portfolios, homepage sliders, and pricing tables. So what actually happens is the opposite: because people want (and will pay for) out-of-the-box functionality, themes become digital fortresses of options and add-ons—all of which disappear if you ever switch themes. It’s like a car whose engine breaks if you ever change paint jobs.
As we’ve discussed, this tradeoff isn’t actually absolute; theme developers who follow best practices can help give you the best of both worlds. In practice, though, a more heavily customizable theme is more likely to be a theme you’re stuck with—both because theme developers don’t always follow best practices, and because some features sit right on the edge of “presentation” and “content.” If a portfolio, for example, has been extensively designed to fit visually into a given theme, it’s going to take work to transition it to a new theme, even if the transition is technically possible.
So far, theme options sound like a generic Bad Thing. So maybe themes should just be lightweight little pieces of software that don’t offer much more than a fresh coat of paint.
On the other hand… it really is nice to be able to pop open your theme and do all kinds of things right away. Add a big colorful call-to-action button, drop in a homepage video, add your business’s Google Maps listing to your contact page—all without calling your developer. And when your developer does call you from the unemployment line, ranting about theme overreach and technical debt and separation of concerns, the desperation in his voice can be hard to interpret. You almost get the sense that he’s jealous that you figured something out on your own.
As we mentioned, we’ve worked with Avada, and its dozens of built-in shortcodes make some aspects of site setup almost surreally easy. Sure, the decision to bake these directly into the theme will also leave your site a smoldering wreck of nonsensical [shortcode] code blocks if you ever try to leave Avada, but we’ve happily built several sites on top of it. It really is right for some people’s needs.
What to do? It depends
Which kind of theme you choose comes down to your budget and your priorities. Here’s our advice:
1. If you’re focused on the short term and have a tightly constrained budget, consider a “kitchen sink” theme.
The sites we built on Avada had something in common: A small budget. The clients wanted something up, now, and weren’t worried about how their sites will look and behave in five years. As galling as it is to developers, this kind of expedient thinking may make sense for businesses that are themselves unstable or rapidly changing, or for prototypes, trial versions, etc. And there’s probably some pseudo-rational case to be made that even sites built beautifully today will be obsolete in five years when we’re all using Google Nose or whatever.
So a kitchen sink theme may very well be right for you. Just understand the tradeoff you’re making as you pile up theme dependencies: the next design change you attempt will likely require a complete overhaul of your site.
2. If you have a budget and want quality, buy a simple theme and hire a developer to customize your site the right way.
Don’t hand your developer a kitchen sink theme. You shouldn’t be paying someone to fiddle with theme options; you should be paying for robust, future-proof solutions that properly separate content and presentation. Find a relatively simple theme whose visual design gets close to what you’re looking for, and have your developer fill in the gaps.
3. Bespoke themes are nice, too.
Off-the-shelf themes aren’t the right solution for every WordPress project. If your needs are very specific or unusual, you might find that customizing an existing theme actually takes longer and leads to worse results than just having it built from scratch. Talk to a few developers you trust about what you’re looking to do, and show them a few themes that seem to get closest to it. Ask what it would take to customize to your needs, and whether a bespoke theme could get there faster.
Bespoke themes are also great for large projects with large budgets. At a certain scale, you want exactly what you want, and existing infrastructure will just end up getting in the way. Finally, if you’re very comfortable in WordPress yourself, building your own theme is a great way to make sure that you understand everything in it. Even themes that look great on the front end often come with architecture surprises, and it’s nice to avoid these if you’re able.
No matter what, start by searching for plugins to handle specific functionality needs
If you want to have job listings on your site, your first impulse should be to Google “job listings WordPress plugin”—not “job listings WordPress theme.” Why would you buy a whole theme just to get a single piece of needed functionality?
Whatever your level of WordPress expertise, searching for and installing plugins should not be a daunting task. In fact, learning the basics of plugin installation and use is one of the most immediate things you can do to empower yourself as a WordPress user or site owner. There are a million tutorials out there on plugin installation—here’s one of them.
So search for what you need. If you want to have job listings on your site, your first impulse should be to Google “job listings WordPress plugin”—not “job listings WordPress theme.” Why would you buy a whole theme just to get a single piece of needed functionality?
If you do your plugin homework, you’ll save your developer work. You can start the project off by presenting a few themes you love visually, and a suite of plugins that you believe might be good solutions for your specific needs (for button shortcodes, contact forms, custom calls-to-action, SEO, site analytics, etc.). This is how a good developer would approach your feature needs anyway, so you might as well start off on the same page.
And just to reiterate, you should never be using theme options to do things that work strictly with data, like monitor SEO performance and install Google Analytics. Just ignore those theme features completely, always, and go with the outstanding plugins that exist for solving exactly those problems.
To sum up
The WordPress theme ecosystem is great because there’s something for everybody. Understand your goals and the tradeoffs you’re making, and you’re likely to buy the theme that’s right for you.
If you have any questions you’d like to ask us, don’t hesitate to contact us, and please post your questions and thoughts in the comments below!